The website Walk Your City encourages people to explore urban centers on foot or by bike through the use of the simplest piece of street furniture: new street signs, authored by locals.

Whether it’s rush hour or the school run, few things demonstrate the strained relationship between cars and cities more than traffic congestion. Neighborhoods that were built for the horse and cart, or the days when it was just one car per family, strain under the weight of countless SUVs and too-large sedans. What was meant to be a symbol of freedom, can often – certainly in urban areas – look like a slowly moving prison. Or to put it more simply: Too many people are using cars, often big cars, when they just don’t need to. Something has to be done.

Step forward Walk Your City, a new project that helps citizens take back urban streets for pedestrians and cyclists. But this isn’t some grand planning project involving mechanical diggers and men in high visibility vests. No, Walk Your City uses a far simpler (and cheaper) way to model the urban environment: the humble street sign.

“It is two minutes to get a coffee“

In the past, street signs were produced by local councils and federal government, displaying directions and distances for drivers. What makes Walk Your City so radical is that the signs are authored by local people who want visitors and neighbors to think about leaving the car behind.

Here’s how it works: Community activists get in touch with Walk Your City, which helps them come up with signs that show the distance in minutes from A to B for pedestrians and cyclists. These signs are informal and clearly written, saying things like “It’s a seven minute walk to the beach” or “It is two minutes to get a coffee.” Once the community activists are happy with their work, WYC ships them the signs.

The man behind the project, Matt Tomasulo, started it all by putting up “guerilla wayfinding” signs in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina. Since what he had done was illegal, his signs were taken down, but the local planning department chief saw merit in what he had done and they were soon put back. Since then, Walk Your City has expanded to such an extent that more than 100 communities have ordered signs from it while it has also received funding from both Kickstarter and the Knight Foundation.

More than 100 communities have ordered signs

Tomasulo told City Lab: “So many communities are interested in Walk Your City campaigns as an immediate solution to their bike/pedestrian needs. But through our work over the past 1.5 years we have realized that so much is missing to complete that process. We have learned a tremendous amount and it is our goal to transfer that knowledge into tools that help communities plan for people more quickly, easily, and in less expensive ways.”

For something that is so in touch with modern thinking on cities, it is no surprise that technology and analytics play an important role in how projects are coordinated. Whether it’s Santa Fe or Greensboro, WYC users can study exactly where their signs should be placed and how effective they are. Every sign even has a QR code that transfers directions to people’s smartphones.

A part of the global “hacktivism“ trend

Walk Your City is part of a worldwide trend of “hacktivism” where citizens take control of urban environments via techniques like guerilla gardening or retrofitting to encourage community interaction. One example of this can be found in North Hills, North Carolina, a former shopping mall that was refitted to take on the appearance of a more traditional town center. The use of Walk Your City signs has been an integral part of that. According to this community, “the signs have been scanned for directions hundreds of times over the past seven months and we continue to receive more and more feedback from residents in the North Hills area saying that they had no idea the different destinations on either side of the development were as close as they actually are. One retired couple shared that they had never realized they could walk from the grocery store to the movie theater – just across the street from each other!”

Making even US suburbs „walkable“

It is becoming ever more clear that the suburbanization of the West, especially in the US, has contributed to increasing levels of pollution, isolation, and obesity among its citizens. Rather than using cars for travelling substantial distances, they are often used for the smallest journeys. The whole point of Walk Your City is to demonstrate that much of the time we can walk or cycle to our destinations – we’ve just been conditioned to use cars for every journey.

Charles Montgomerie, urban theorist and author of Happy Cities, says that urban areas must cater to our need for collaboration, communication, and cohesion.

“Our cities succeed or fail to the extent they enable us to spend good time with family or friends and to maximize positive interactions with strangers,” he says. “We know this is essential for economic development and to remain strong in the face of, say, economic hardship or environmental disasters. Coincidentally, the social city that enables us to come together is also the one that values experience over things.”

With the success of Walk Your City, it looks like we are heading in this direction at last.

All the images, incl. the header image: W[YC]